So I sat down to watch an older film I hadn’t yet seen. No, not the Battleship Potemkin … I saw that one in college. I watched Cry, the Beloved Country. Many of you have probably already seen it (like I said, I’m a little behind), but for those of you who haven’t it is the story of two men living in South Africa in the 1940’s. Richard Harris plays a wealthy, European landholder who lives in the rural Natal Province. James Earl Jones plays an Anglican priest living in the same region. Both have sons and both sons leave their fathers to journey to a far country: Johannesburg. Both sons reject the ways of their fathers. The wealthy son of privilege rejects his father’s bigotry and imperialism to work for racial reconciliation. The son of the Anglican priest rejects his father’s Christian morals and becomes a petty criminal. The father’s stories intersect when the son of the Anglican priest kills the landholder’s son. It was rather ironic to think I was watching this knowing the gospel reading was on the Prodigal Son this week! No coincidences in the Kingdom, are there?
In a scene near the end of the film, after the son of the Anglican priest is convicted of murder, the older priest confides in his priest colleague who has helped him in his search for lost family members in Johannesburg. The old priest tells his friend that if there is no mercy for his son and he is to die for this crime, he will go up to the mountain to pray. He then reveals he’s only done this twice in his life: once when his son Absalom was ill as a young boy and once when he was tempted to commit adultery. The old priest then says, “I have never confessed that to anyone before.”
Confession: the laying bare of the truth of our lives. It is a sacrament of the Church and at Grace it becomes quite prominent during Lent as we open our worship with the Penitential Order
“Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,
we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. And there is no health in us.”
OK, I know you are thinking, “Wait a minute. I don’t remember that last line.” That’s right, you don’t. It was part of the original prayer Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote in 1552 and it was in the prayer up until the 1979 revision when it was stricken. Call me “old school,” but I think we are the poorer for it being removed. There is no health in us. We are for all intents and purposes … dead. And death is at the heart of the story of the Prodigal Son.
Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon calls the parable of the Prodigal Son a “festival of death.” What a juxtaposition of words! He notes that everyone, with the exception of the older brother, dies in this story – at least figuratively. It opens with the death of the father. “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.” Arrogant little twit, isn’t he? Even today we bristle at the impudence of this son. He essentially says, “Put the will into effect right now and drop dead old man.” And the amazing thing is … the father does it. He divides his property – in Greek his “bios” (from which we get the word “biology”) which means “life” – between them. He cuts himself in two and pours his life out … and drops dead (at least socially). Both sons receive their inheritance – the older getting his two thirds share and the younger his one third according to the law.
The younger one then journeys to a far country where he squanders his property in dissolute living. Translations vary on this: profligate living, dissolute living, riotous living. But Luke is speaking about much more than blowing the cash. He says the son squandered his ouisias – his substance. He wasted his substance – he wasted himself: physically, emotionally, spiritually … and the money ran out. Oh I’m sure he had a grand old time: booze, broads, gambling … whatever vices you can imagine, they haven’t really changed in 2,000 years. He wastes himself and hits, in the parlance of addiction and recovery, rock bottom. A famine comes on the land and he is reduced to taking a job slopping hogs. For a nice Jewish boy, this is as low as you can go! His life, whatever he may have tried to make of it, was over. He was dead. And he figures this out as he eyes up the hog slop and thinks, “Hey, I could eat that.” He comes to himself – he wises up – and realizes his father’s hired hands have plenty to eat. He knows he can’t return and expect to be treated like a son, so he cooks up a plan. He’ll try to wangle his way in as a hired hand. Maybe the old boy will fall for it. He even comes up with his line: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
But as he returns, the stench of the pig sty still clinging to his body, his father sees him and runs to greet him. How scandalous! No self-respecting father would do that to a son who had dissed him so badly. But wait … the father is dead. He doesn’t care about appearances! All he cares about is extravagant love … a love that can only be set free when we admit we are dead. The father throws his arms around his son and the son then dies on the spot. He says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Period. Full stop. End of sentence. No more conniving. No more games. He’s dead and he knows it. That is confession!
Confession is the admission we are dead and no effort on our part can save us. Confession is not an apology. Too often there is confusion about this. If your confession prayer consists of a litany of all your personal peccadillos and screw ups only to find that next week, your list is about the same as it was last week, then you are stuck in apology mode. Confession is when we say, “Almighty God, I am dead as evidenced by …” and then fill in the blank with those things done and left undone. When we admit we are dead, and only when we admit it, can God’s grace ever have a chance of entering our lives. If we don’t admit we are dead, we’ll never let the grace in because we think we can do life on our terms. Once you admit you are dead and God’s grace enters your life, then and only then can real healing begin, real reconciliation happen and real love be set free. It’s only then when the real celebration – the party – can begin.
So now we have a dead father, a dead younger son, a dead fatted calf, and a big old party going on. Then … cue the music … in walks the older son. Captain Buzzkill himself reporting for duty! This son hasn’t figured out he’s dead. And is he ticked off! He’s been the dutiful son, the one who played by the rules. He has a whole balance sheet of debits and credits. If there’s a “brownie point” system, he’s got it. And the favor shown to this younger son really burns his backside. You see, he wants to keep score. And before we admit we are dead, we want to keep score too. We’ll keep our own balance sheet of who wronged us and how we’re going to get even, won’t we? But the father, after getting the upbraiding by his older son, says to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life …” Your brother has dropped dead and come to the party. He leaves us wondering whether or not the older son will drop dead too. Drop dead to an egocentric life of score keeping and resentments. Drop dead so that he can truly live. Will he drop dead? More importantly … will you … drop … dead?